God help me, but I’m a sucker for a good literary screen biography, and the more period perfect the better.
The likes of “Becoming Jane,” “Shakespeare in Love” and “The Last Station” might live by formula, a “this inspired that” conceit. But if it’s done with style and a little whimsy, I’m there.
“Mary Shelley” is in essence “Becoming Frankenstein,” the story of how a British teen had the education, talent, life experience and literary ambitions thanks to the salon she was a part of, to create one of the seminal novels in the history of horror.
The luminous Elle Fanning plays Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, a morbid, writerly teen raised by a free-thinking father, whose scandalized proto-feminist mother died when she was born. Dad (Stephen Dillane) educated her and taught her that “to love reading is to have everything within yourary uses that as an excuse to goof off, reading ghost stories in the cemetery were her mother is buried. “I was the one who killed her, after all.” Her siblings revel in it, but stepmum (Joanne Froggatt of “Downton Abbey”) does not approve.
Being sent off to stay with relatives in Scotland only encourages her ambitions, and exposes her to the sort of scandal her parents used to create. She falls in love with the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth of “Romeo & Juliet”). He’s forward, and she, even at sixteen, gives as good as she gets.
“Just how old ARE you, then?”
“Old enough to know why you’re asking.”
The affair is torrid, by the PG-13 standards of Austenesque Georgian Britain. Only meeting the man’s wife puts a damper on things, and that is but temporary.
They’ve met and discounted the talents of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, but when actress-sister Claire (Bel Powley) tumbles for the tippling wit Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge of “Far from the Madding Crowd”), they’re off to Switzerland to absorb the mercurial man’s attention and challenge one another, during a rainy spell, to write a really good “ghost story.”
“There are witches in the wind,” the high-born drunk purrs.
Saudi filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour revels in the costumes, the cast and the words so much that “Mary Shelley” loses the sense of forward motion, here and there. But she gives Fanning’s Mary time to absorb the body-blows of a lost baby and a feckless mate, which she expresses in Austenesque sarcasm to Percy, who wishes she was as into swinging 1810s Britain and free love as he is.
“Are you not cold?”
“My hypocrisy keeps me warm,” she sneers, “as does my cloak of disappointment.”
Booth makes a splendid Percy, Dillane (“The Hours,” “Game of Thrones”) a believably reluctant-to-judge but disapproving father and Sturridge a reasonable facsimile of the dissolute intellectual brute Byron.
Fanning merely as to hold her own with this lot, and after an opening voice-over that sounds like a British accent lesson run amuk — “The DE-mon cahst his buhnning STAHR upon huh” — settles into a marvelously period-perfect woman with education, ambition and the talent to be affronted that no one will believe a woman, much less one of her tender years, could write a tale so horrific and layered.
It’s not as brisk or funny as the best films of the genre, reasonably romantic but never quite as heartbreaking as you’d hope. But “Mary Shelley” renews our acquaintance with an important writer and the world who molded her, and adds even more range to the collection of characters Fanning — The next Saorise or Mia Warsikowska? — can pull off.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexuality and thematic elements including substance abuse
Cast: Elle Fanning, Douglas Booth, Tom Sturridge, Bel Powley, Stephen Dillane, Joanne Froggatt
Running time: 2:00